[Without a political solution or a stepped-up military effort, the United States is not only left with little influence over the course of the Syrian civil war, but without a viable strategy to bring all of the warring parties together to fight the Islamic State.]
A refugee from
Wednesday. Credit Bulent Kilic/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But after days of intense bombing that could soon put the critical city of
back into the hands of Mr.
Assad’s forces, the Russians may be proving the Aleppo wrong. There may be a military
solution, one senior American official conceded Wednesday, “just not our
solution,” but that of President Vladimir
V. Putin of Russia. United States
That is what Secretary of State John Kerry faces as he enters a critical negotiation over a cease-fire and the creation of a “humanitarian corridor” to relieve starving Syrians besieged in more than a dozen cities, most by Mr. Assad’s forces. The Russian military action has changed the shape of a conflict that had effectively been stalemated for years. Suddenly, Mr. Assad and his allies have momentum, and the United States-backed rebels are on the run. If a cease-fire is negotiated here, it will probably come at a moment when Mr. Assad holds more territory, and more sway, than since the outbreak of the uprisings in 2011.
Mr. Kerry enters the negotiations with very little leverage: The Russians have cut off many of the pathways the C.I.A. has been using for a not-very-secret effort to arm rebel groups, according to several current and former officials. Mr. Kerry’s supporters inside the administration say he has been increasingly frustrated by the low level of American military activity, which he views as essential to bolstering his negotiation effort.
Publicly, Mr. Kerry is circumspect about his dilemma. “We are all very, very aware of how critical this moment is,” he said on Tuesday.
His colleagues in the administration, however, fear that a three-month-long effort to begin the political process is near collapse. If it fails, it will force Mr. Kerry and President Obama, once again, to consider their Plan B: a far larger military effort, directed at Mr. Assad. But that is exactly the kind of conflict that Mr. Obama has spent five years trying to avoid, especially when any ground campaign would rely on forces led by a fractious group of opposition leaders that he distrusts.
Without a political solution or a stepped-up military effort, the United States is not only left with little influence over the course of the Syrian civil war, but without a viable strategy to bring all of the warring parties together to fight the Islamic State.
As Mr. Kerry arrived here for another meeting of the 17 nations that agreed last fall on principles for a political solution, several of Washington’s own allies complained bitterly about American policy, saying the United States is absent while the Russians change the nature of the situation on the ground.
Laurent Fabius, the French foreign minister, used the announcement of his imminent retirement to poke holes, once again, in the American plan forSyria, which he called “ambiguous” and absent a “very strong commitment.” Throughout his tenure he has been critical of the United States for not being more aggressive, often to the exasperation of State Department and White House officials, who charged that the French grandstand in public but have been cautious to get into a fight that has no clear outcome.
An open breach erupted with the Turks, who charge that the
is empowering the Kurds, with
whom Turkey believes it is in an existential
struggle. President Recep
Tayyip Erdogan, the country’s president, denounced Washington for
failing to declare a Syrian Kurdish rebel group a terrorist organization. United States
“Are you on our side or the side of the terrorist P.Y.D. and P.K.K. organizations?” Mr. Erdogan said in an address to provincial officials in the Turkish capital,
, referring to American support
for members of the Syrian Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or P.Y.D., in their
fight against the Islamic State in Ankara , and to the Kurdistan Workers’
Party, or P.K.K. The Syria considers the Kurds the only
truly effective fighters against the Islamic State. United States
Then Mr. Erdogan — president of a NATO member nation — turned to taunts. “Hey,
,” he said. “Because you never
recognized them as a terrorist group, the region has turned into a sea of
At the core of the American strategic dilemma is that the Russian military adventure, which Mr. Obama dismissed last year as ill-thought-out muscle flexing, has been surprising effective in helping Mr. Assad reclaim the central cities he needs to hold power, at least in a rump-state version of Syria.
Testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday, the director of national intelligence, James R. Clapper, offered a sobering picture of
’s success, even if it proves a
temporary one. Russia
“Putin is the first leader since Stalin to expand
’s territory,” he told a Senate
committee. In Russia ’s first major overseas
military effort since its humiliation in Russia 35 years ago, he said, “Its
interventions demonstrate the improvements in Russian military capabilities and
the Kremlin’s confidence in using them.” Afghanistan
While he predicted Mr. Putin would be challenged to afford the commitment over the long term, especially at a moment of falling oil prices, he offered a bleak assessment for
. “In Washington ,” he said, “pro-regime forces
have the initiative, having made some strategic gains near Syria and Latakia in the north, as
well as in southern Aleppo .” While Mr. Assad has
“manpower shortages,” he said, at least his forces were unified. Syria
“The opposition has less equipment and firepower and its groups lack unity,” he told the senators. “They sometimes have competing battlefield interests and fight among themselves.”
Mr. Obama has been cautious, rejecting a plan, for example, from then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the C.I.A. director at the time, David H. Petraeus, to start a large-scale arming of the rebel groups. Instead, the effort has been far more modest, and because even that has been ostensibly secret — though among the worst-kept secrets in
— it creates an impression
that all the military momentum is on Mr. Putin’s side. Washington
Battle maps from the Institute for the Study of War show, in fact, that it is: The Russians, with Iranian help on the ground, appear to be handing Mr. Assad enough key cities that his government can hang on.
Current and former administration officials say they see a parallel to Mr. Putin’s strategy in
: He keeps his foreign minister,
Sergey V. Lavrov, negotiating cease-fires and slow-progressing political
accords, while making inroads on the battlefield. Ukraine
Those inroads have limited Mr. Obama’s options. For example the much discussed “no-fly zone” would now be far harder to enforce, since Russian jets are flying in that airspace.
While the official position of the United States remains that Mr. Assad must leave office, Mr. Kerry and his aides will not say when he must leave, or whether he could participate in the process of selecting a new government. Their talk about finding a quiet exile for the Syrian leader has largely ceased.
As a result, it is hard to discern now what kind of end for
is now envisioned by the
administration. The political document adopted in Syria three months ago calls for a
single, unified state. That seems increasingly unlikely. A fractured nation —
part Alawite, part Sunni, part Kurd — is often discussed, but never officially. Vienna
Mr. Kerry is turning to the more immediate questions of cease-fire and humanitarian access. That did not impress Abu Youssef, whose farm in
has been hosting dozens of
Syrians displaced by the recent fighting nearby. He asked to be identified only
by a nickname for his safety. Aleppo Province
“Yes, they will have a cease-fire, but after
it is finished,” he said in an
online chat. “They will close off all of Aleppo , destroy the whole area, and
then the Russians will negotiate a cease-fire,” he added. “After winning
victory they will negotiate.” Aleppo
Anne Barnard contributed reporting from
, Hwaida Saad from Gaziantep, Turkey , and Somini Sengupta
from the United Nations. Beirut, Lebanon